Expressive Writing for Health & Mental Health

I love writing (hello, this is a blog after all) and I’ve always found it to be helpful for me in my own life (and health) journeys (that and music). I came across some research on the mental and PHYSICAL health benefits of expressive writing, so I did a bit more digging and damn, we should all be doing more of it! And hopefully, this post will inspire you to do some. Hearing that there are mental health benefits is probably less shocking than that there are physical health benefits to expressive writing, so we’ll start there, but before we get into that, let’s quickly establish what expressive writing is. Expressive writing is simply writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings about an event or situation, without holding back. When people do this, it is often through journaling, and is often free-writing, without too much thinking about it. It can be done on the computer or by hand, really whatever you prefer. The leading pioneer in this research is Pennebaker (too many articles to site them all), but I’ll site some of the other research on the subject (which also references him) at the end of the post.

Buying a journal (or using an online one) can get you in expressive writing mode.

Okay, so the mental health benefits:

  • reduces stress
  • reduces symptoms of depression
  • reduces post-traumatic symptoms
  • improves mood
  • improves focus and concentration – including in people with ADHD
  • improves working memroy
  • improves emotion regulation (which is our ability to control the quality, frequency, intensity and duration of our emotional responses to situations)
  • and it increases our self-awareness
Improve your mood!

If these aren’t good enough reasons to do some expressive writing, then maybe the physical health benefits will convince you:

  • decreases the number of doctor’s visits you’ll have
  • reduces the number of days spent in the hospital
  • reduces the overall number of hospitalizations – i.e., people with cystic fibrosis
  • reduces blood pressure
  • reduces chronic pain – i.e., cancer and chronic pain conditions
  • reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions – i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (SLE)
  • improves immune functioning – i.e., cancer, HIV
  • improves lung functioning – asthma
  • improves liver functioning
  • improves and speeds up post-operative recovery
  • improves overall physical well-being

And then, if that’s still not enough for you, there are some other general benefits:

  • reduced number of “sick” days from work plus faster return to work if you were layed off
  • increased GPA in university students
  • improved sporting performance in athletes
Even improve sporting performance! Me and some friends after a curling tournament in 2019.

Okay, so how does this all work? I mean, I understand how it can improve some of the mental health problems we may experience, because we’re writing about our thoughts and feelings. But how does it improve our physical health? Well, actually the two are related. Remember that stress has a HUGE impact on our physical health, and the mind and body are connecting, meaning that anxiety and depression can also feed into (and trauma can cause) physical health problems. The processes of expressive writing are as follows:

  • it allows for cognitive processing and restructuring of painful events and situations – cognitive restructuring changes how we perceive emotional stressors (both internal and external)
  • it allows for repeated exposure – which is controlled re-experiencing of events and situations so that they have less influence over our minds and behaviours

Improving our bodies, improves our minds and vice versa. Here’s the podcast episode on it.

How do we engage in expressive writing? According to the experts we need to write about our deepest thoughts and feelings, without holding back, about situations or events or really anything relevant to us at this moment that are painful. This could be anything from having cancer, to spending time in the hospital to going through a traumatic event. When we sit down to write, it should be for 15-20 minutes at time, without stopping, and be done on 4 consecutive days. Just doing that is enough to lead to all the benefits I listed earlier. It’s possible that more consistent writing could have more improvements, but I honestly didn’t find much on that. So, I’m curious, who’s going to try out some of this expressive writing to see if it helps?

Me! Me! I like health & well-being!

I want to remind everyone that in addition to this blog, if you’re looking for more information to improve your health, I have a podcast: Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, which is available on Apple, Spotify and everywhere else you get podcasts, including this web link. I also have a YouTube channel for those of you looking to incorporate more mindfulness as it has a number of benefits for your physical and mental health as well: Kelsey L Harris Meditations.
Until next week, keep making the most of it!

References:

Baikie, K.A., & Wilhelm, . (2018). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Lepore, S-J., Greenberg, M.A., Bruno, A., Smyth, J.M. (2002). Expressive writing and health: Self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology and behaviour. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 99-117). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10451-005
Stanton, A.L., Danoff-burg, S., & Huggins, M.E. (2002). The first year after breast cancer diagnosis: Hope and coping strategies as predictors of adjustment. Psycho-Oncology, 11(2), 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.574

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